Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf announced on July 18 that the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had issued a private reprimand over her handling of an investigation into the fatal shooting of Richland resident Charity Thome by Pennsylvania State Police troopers.
The reprimand is the result of an ethics complaint filed by Lebanon County branch of the NAACP in February 2022 against Hess Graf with the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court, which handles complaints by clients and the public against attorneys.
Thome was fatally shot on March 16, 2020, by Troopers Jay Splain and Matthew Haber after a high-speed, early-morning vehicular chase that ended on rural King Street in South Lebanon Township.
A little more than a month later, Hess Graf cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, saying that they were justified in their use of deadly force against Thome.
In April 2020, shortly after clearing the officers of wrongdoing, Hess Graf told LebTown that although her husband was a corporal at PSP Jonestown, where Troopers Splain and Haber were based, he had nothing to do with the incident or the investigation.
In December 2021, the New York Times broke the news that Thome was in fact the third Pennsylvania resident to be fatally shot by Splain. By that time, Splain had also fatally shot a fourth Pennsylvania resident, Andy Dzwonchyk of Jonestown, in November 2021. (Hess Graf would later clear troopers for their use of force in that incident; days later, a federal court civil lawsuit over the shooting would be settled by Pennsylvania State Police for $1.75 million.)
Shortly thereafter, in February 2022, the Lebanon County branch of the NAACP filed its ethics complaint. The NAACP based its complaint on the allegation that the DA’s marriage to a trooper in the same barracks as Splain and Haber created a conflict of interest that prevented her from performing independent and objective investigations.
Hess Graf told LebTown at the time that the complaint was meritless, but would not address whether there could be at least the appearance of impropriety in her handling of the case, as is the standard set by Pennsylvania law for prosecutors.
In June 2022, the New York Times reported that Graf’s husband, Cpl. Christopher Graf, was in fact Splain’s supervisor at the time of the Thome shooting, something that had not been previously disclosed. Splain would later say in court depositions that he, Hess Graf, and Cpl. Graf had also briefly attended a birthday party together for another trooper’s son.
The decision to disclose the Disciplinary Board’s determination of the NAACP complaint was entirely Hess Graf’s. The NAACP did not hear of the determination from the Disciplinary Board directly.
Board counsel Laura Mohney told LebTown that as the matter concerning Hess Graf is not a public proceeding, the board is unable to comment on any aspect of the complaint. “Of course, DA Hess (Graf) is free to release any details she may wish,” said Mohney.
In her July 18 statement (PDF), Hess Graf said that her husband was not a material witness, was not on duty on the night of the shooting and played no role in the incident.
“We followed our policy and believed it proper to do so,” said Hess Graf in the statement.
Hess Graf said that “after a year and half back and forth” the Disciplinary Board ultimately found that she should not have handled the shooting investigation because her husband worked out of the same barracks as the trooper who used deadly force.
“In hindsight, I can understand the public scrutiny and the Board’s decision, though I still stand by the investigation and its outcome,” said Hess Graf. “We accepted the determination.”
Hess Graf also said that neither the Disciplinary Board nor “any other agency” has ever questioned the outcome of the investigation – that the shooting was justified under the law.
However, neither the Disciplinary Board nor “any other agency” has so far been asked to consider that issue, or had the power or authority to do so.
A federal court civil lawsuit alleging that the troopers were not justified in their use of deadly force against Thome will be tried in Harrisburg this fall.
Hess Graf said that her statement and “the accountability which comes with it” was her choice alone. She also said that she decided last fall to refer any officer-involved shootings or fatal incidents to the Office of the Attorney General.
“I crafted a new conflict policy to avoid a situation of this kind from ever occurring again,” said Hess Graf. “I now view this matter as closed.”
Hess Graf had not responded to a LebTown request for the new conflict policy as of publication time.
In a statement, the Lebanon County branch of the NAACP said that it applauded the decision to reprimand Hess Graf, but that it was disappointed the reprimand was classified as “private” given the public’s right to know.
“The ruling offers a powerful reminder of the critical importance of checks and balances in a democratic system, and that ordinary citizens, acting collectively, have the power to hold public officials accountable for their actions,” said the NAACP.
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